It is Waterstones High Street Kensington in 1987, a late August morning tinted with autumnal melancholy. As a rookie, I am given two boxes of French maps to price and shelve. As I do this all the anxieties in my life fall away. It is such a worthwhile and soothing task that my mind actually stops wittering on about the future and the past. Years later, I discover a Zen book called Chop Wood , Carry Water which recommends “doing what you are doing” as a way to rest the mind in its sky-like nature. Twenty years later, I still love shelving the Institut Geographique National’s Series Bleu. When I called them in Paris to ask for a spinner I felt I was asking the Vatican for a bulk deal on communion wafers: IGN are the Jesuits of cartography: self-contained, super-intelligent and only willing to deal with the rest of the world on their own terms. They dislike having UK agents so much that for a while their sole outlet here was a bloke who bought the maps over in a contraband van. I presume he was quietly clubbed to death with a theodolite one night outside a bar in Calais.
Maps can heal the world, by getting us out there walking, wandering and broadening the mind. It is no coincidence that America, with its troubled foreign policy, has no ordnance survey: the nation is cartographically challenged. Maps inspire, and although they no longer carry the ancient inscription “Here Be Dragons”, they still contain those great voids which lured Graham Greene and Wilfred Thesiger to make the journeys recounted in Blank on the Map and Arabian Sands.
Bill Bryson understands the mana, or spirit-power, of maps. Sitting in a Copenhagen café as backpackers inspect their cheap pop-outs or childish jumbo-scale city centre plans he slowly unfolds his Kummerley and Frey, those superb Swiss maps with hallucinogenic clarity, relief shading and detail. “My map told the whole café: ‘this is a map, I am the traveller here’” Bryson described his 1972 purchase of the entire K&F range as “the intelligent investment of my youth”.
Commercially, maps are a classic high-margin add-on sale, undemanding of shelf-space, and neither the internet nor GPS have slowed their sales growth. My map sales eclipse cookery or biography. Map Reps are usually enthusiasts who help out by putting maps in order, removing old editions and helping customers. They understand that the map section is a portal for the imagination, a fortress against the triviality of.. …..hang on, perhaps I have caught cartographic fever .. time for a lie-down with that new Nelles map of the Amazon Basin.